Award-winning Puerto Rican-born novelist and painter, Eleanor Parker Sapia was raised in the United States, Europe, and Puerto Rico. Eleanor is a Finalist for Best Historical Fiction, English in the 2016 International Latino Book Awards. Her bestselling historical novel, A Decent Woman, set in colonial Puerto Rico, was selected as July 2015 Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club, and is a favorite with book clubs around the country. A Decent Woman was selected as 'Essential Boricua Reading for the 2015 Holiday Season' by Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, and Eleanor is featured in the award-winning anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani. Eleanor’s life experiences as a painter, counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker inspire her passion for writing. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups and tells herself she is walking El Camino de Santiago a second time. Eleanor is a proud member of PEN America, Historical Novel Society, and Las Comadres Para Las Americas. She is the mother of two adventurous, loving grown children and currently lives in wild and wonderful West Virginia, where she is writing her second novel, "The Laments of Sister Maria Inmaculada", and a collection of short stories.
1. What inspired you to write A Decent Woman?
Thank you for inviting me to visit with your readers. I am honored to be here.
I am a Puerto Rican-born, Spanish speaking writer currently living in wild and wonderful West Virginia. I was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico to an American soldier and a Puerto Rican mother and went on to marry an army officer, which led to a rich life of travel and wonderful opportunities to meet interesting people from all walks of life, which of course means I have tons of stories swirling in my head. My heart belongs to Puerto Rico, so my initial inspiration was to write a love letter to the island of my birth and pay tribute to my kids and to the women of my family. The setting of A Decent Woman, Ponce, Puerto Rico, is my hometown.
Another strong inspiration was that I had never read a story in English about a diverse heroine living and working in colonial Puerto Rico. A diverse heroine was important to me, so I wrote what I wanted to read. I was inspired by the literary traditions of the early Puerto Rican classics I read as a child, like El jibaro and La charca, which dealt with societal issues of the day and portrayed the lives of people in the lower and higher echelons of colonial Puerto Rican society. My story is about an Afro-Cuban midwife; a young widow with small children who marries into a prominent family; and about women of all walks of life, all thrown into the mix in turn of the century Puerto Rico.
Lastly, I was inspired by the women of my family, who were amazing storytellers. I loved my grandmother’s stories of her midwife, a black Caribbean woman of unknown origin, who caught my mother, two aunts, and an uncle. It was thought Dona Aña came from the island of Martinique, but no one was sure. I was quite fascinated with her. It came as no surprise that the colorful Ana became my protagonist, though initially Serafina was the leading lady. But who can resist a rum-drinking, cigar-smoking midwife with a big attitude and a heart of gold? I couldn’t!
2. If you could describe this book in a few sentences, what would you say?
Set against the combustive, colonial backdrop of a misogynistic society where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of two lifelong friends: a poor, illiterate Afro-Cuban midwife and a young widow with small children who marries into a prominent family, as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.
3. How would you describe the correlation between Ana and Serafina?
When the story begins, Ana the midwife delivers newly-married, sixteen-year old Serafina’s first child. Unmarried and alone, Ana is distrustful of men and authority, a loner, but she is loyal to her midwifery clients and their children. Ana’s journey is about keeping a dark secret from her past hidden while searching for love, respectability, and a family to call her own. She tries her best to live a “decent” life in a turbulent time in Puerto Rico’s history, when many single women find themselves in “indecent” lifestyles and situations to feed and protect their families because they have no male protection.
Motherless sixteen-year old Serafina pursues a friendship with Ana, which will reopen their hearts, and later, break them for a few years. Although Serafina later remarries and has the protection of men, her life is paved with heartache and much loss. Serafina’s journey is growing up and maturing into a confident wife, mother, and loyal friend. Later in life, Serafina will come face to face with her humble beginnings.
What forever bonds these two women is a fierce friendship, loyalty, and an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor after a crime is committed against her. They are mother and daughter in many ways.
4. What are some of the main socio-economic issues that you explore in this book and why did you explore them?
Before my divorce, I worked as a counselor and a Spanish language refugee case worker, and later, as a Spanish language social worker with immigrant families in Northern Virginia. My heart and stories will always be entwined with the marginalized and overlooked members of society. I am proud to give them a voice in literature.
The initial themes of motherhood, friendship, and the sisterhood of women sprang naturally and organically, thanks to my Puerto Rican grandmother, mother, and aunt’s stories of growing up, marrying, and raising families in Puerto Rico. Misogyny, poverty, and racism against black, white, and mulatto women were issues I gleaned from their stories and from research. The atrocities committed against Puerto Ricans, with forced sterilization by the U.S. Department of Health, came to light through research, as did the mass cleansing of black and mulatto women in Ponce. Though not initially planned, I had to include these historical facts in the story. We should never turn our backs on what we discover as writers. If it is a truth, write it. You discovered the truth for a reason.
5. What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
I ended up writing a book about the suffering, joys, and hard lives of women of different social echelons and economic status in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. I didn’t set out to write that story, but I couldn’t turn my back or ignore what I’d discovered through research.
Readers will take away what they need from a story. As with viewing a piece of art, stories are subjective, and each person will gain something different from their unique background and life perspective. One discovery I made while writing the book was that my life, with its challenges, joys, and struggles, wasn’t that different from women of the past. Life was certainly harder for women at the turn of the century, without modern conveniences, opportunities, rights, but many women around the world today are living exactly like our foremothers—or worse—with few or no rights, limited modern conveniences, and unreachable opportunities for themselves and their children. That wasn’t a discovery—it was a painful reminder.
Maybe readers will gain a bit of knowledge about Puerto Rico’s complex history as a Spanish colony and a U.S. colony after the Spanish-American War in 1899. Puerto Rico has a rich history, culture, and fascinating traditions, thanks to our Taino Indian, African, and Spanish roots. I hope I portrayed those in the book.
I do hope that readers who normally don’t pick up historical fiction will realize the people of long ago faced much the same issues we face today. As I said in another interview, we are single and married, working mothers, and stay-at-home moms, and some of us are faced with indecent situations in order to feed our families. We are society women, educated women, and women living on the fringes of society. In my mind, we are a sisterhood. The word we use in Puerto Rico to refer to dear women friends is comadre, which literally means, “the woman who helped birth my children.” It also means “my friend for life.”
6. What do you like best and what do you like least about being a writer?
I love reading, writing, and I love research, which is a perfect recipe for an historical novelist. This motto, which came to me while writing A Decent Woman, sums up what I love best about writing: “This is what we want for ourselves as writers and as readers—we want to reach others and we want to be moved.” Other than working from home, which I am blessed to do, I love creating and sharing diverse heroines with my readers. They are ordinary women who do extraordinary things while living in turbulent times, extraordinary times is how I’d describe them.
What I like least about being a writer is that I don’t have enough hours in a day to get all I want to say down on paper. I have so many stories I want to tell! I’ve also found it difficult to read books for pleasure. These days, I find myself reading books for content and style, which often takes away from the story, as I sit with a highlighter in hand! With little time, I’m now picky about what I read; if I don’t like the story by the third chapter, I close the book.
7. Who are some of your favorite authors?
Jack Remick, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy, and Milos Kundera are among my favorite contemporary authors. I buy their new books sight unseen, every time. Of course, I love Jane Austen.
8. If your book would be turned into a movie, who would you imagine playing the part of the main characters? (Actor can be ANYONE, living or dead.)
I was an exhibiting painter for twenty-five years before discovering my love of writing stories. It was important for me to visualize my characters as I discovered more about them through writing. The adult Ana would be played by one of my favorite actresses, the fabulous Viola Davis. Ana Belén is strong, gentle, intelligent, and has the quiet strength and gritty courage I’ve seen in many of Viola’s roles in films and on television. I adore Viola’s grin, which reminds me of Ana, who in my mind’s eye has a great grin.
For the flashbacks of young Ana as a child born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Cuba, I’d pick the young actress and Oscar winner, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Lupita Nyong’o would be perfect to play Ana in her twenties when she first arrives in Puerto Rico.
I visualize the young actress Selena Gomez as Serafina at sixteen and the incredibly-talented Mexican actress and director Salma Hayek as the adult Serafina. Of course, I think A Decent Woman would make a great film!
9. Are you working on anything right now?
Yes, I’m currently working on a novel called The Laments of Sister Maria Inmaculada, set in 1920 Puerto Rico. It’s the story of a young nun working at a leprosarium on a small Puerto Rican islet called Isla de Cabras, The Island of Goats, off the coast of San Juan. I didn’t think I could love another story and new characters as much as I did with my first book, but I do. I hope readers will enjoy my second book, which will come out in 2017.
10. And, finally, what do you think is in store for the future of Latino literature?
I believe the future in Latino literature is bright with more Latinos penning books in all genres. There are still only a handful of Latino literary agents and publishing companies that cater to Latino writers, and I hope that changes in the future. What I’m most happy about is that more Latinos are active on social media, which helps everyone get their products and books out into the world.